Opinion |

Coronavirus, and Saudi Arabia, Force Moscow to Freeze Its Plans for Middle East Domination

The coronavirus pandemic and the Kremlin’s battle with Saudi Arabia over oil prices are exposing both the vagueness and fragility of Putin’s ambitions in the Mideast, from Damascus to Tehran to Riyadh

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the opening of the G20 leaders summit, Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 30, 2018.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the opening of the G20 leaders summit, Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 30, 2018Credit: SERGIO MORAES/ REUTERS

First came the opening salvoes of an oil price war, then the emergence of the coronavirus as a global emergency depressing oil demand, and now Russia and Saudi Arabia are trading surprisingly garish verbal blows. But the most significant damage that Vladimir Putin may have to absorb from his recent head-to-head with Riyadh could well be in the foreign policy zone – necessitating a freezing of Kremlin ambitions in the Middle East.

Russia’s official statistics so far project some of the lowest numbers of registered coronavirus cases of anymajor nation, data which should be taken with a grain of salt.

But the pandemic’s effects could be broader. Struggling to accommodate the political impact of a double-headed oil-plus-coronavirus economic slump, the Kremlin may well choose to curtail its military ventures abroad and focus on preserving its gains. The coronavirus pandemic might emerge as another challenge to the Kremlin’s ambitious but bafflingly vague regional aspirations.

The urgent OPEC+ meeting set for Monday to mediate between the two sides has been postponed, amid unusually frank finger-pointing by Moscow and Riyadh – with Putin blaming the Saudis for the oil price crash and the Saudi foreign minister characterizing recent remarks by Putin as "fully devoid of the truth" - has already underscored the fragility of Russia’s diplomatic stance in the Middle East.

Struggling to accommodate the domestic impacts of the projected economic fallout of the low oil prices and global recession, the next few months might reveal the limitations of the Kremlin’s policies in the region.

The (unfounded) expectations that there would be a swift resolution of modern-day ‘oil wars’ highlighted much more than an anticipation that Russia and Saudi Arabia could get over their mutual recrimination in triggering the turmoil in oil markets, which has seen global oil prices sink by more than two-thirds since January.

One of the apparent (or gullible) optimists, Donald Trump, launched a weekend tweet lauding his "friend MBS (Crown Prince) of Saudi Arabia, who spoke with President Putin of Russia" about cutting back oil production. That sent oil prices rising along with cautious hopes about a quick deal.

But the very next day, Putin torpedoed talk of a coordinated de-escalation.

"Unfortunately, our partners from Saudi Arabia didn’t agree to extend the deal on current conditions, effectively withdrew from the deal and announced significant additional discounts for their oil," he claimed. The statement was at odds with both Rosneft’s announcement earlier in March that the OPEC+ deal does not serve Russia’s national interests and a previous claim by Russia’s deputy energy minister that deeper oil cuts just won't work.

The response from Riyadh was quick; Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan declared that Putin was falsifying facts, and refused to enter into negotiations. Prince Faisal was setting up Saudi Arabia’s position, and pushing back against what already seem like unrealistic Russia’s demands for oil cuts, lowering expectations for agreement at the upcoming OPEC+ meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on global energy markets via a video link at his residence outside Moscow, Russia April 3, 2020Credit: SPUTNIK/ REUTERS

Nonetheless, this blunt language contrasts drastically with the lavish reception Putin received in Riyadh, complete with 16 Arabian horses accompanying his motorcade from the airport, just last year and the multiple signed oil agreements and engaged discussions on Mideast security issues – not least, Iran.

The intense rhetoric this week may be exposing the emptiness of what superficially appeared to be successful meetings: that despite the apparent personal warmth between Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, the sides struggled with building any significant common outlook. Russia’s cooperation with OPEC was complicated from the start and Moscow joined the cartel amidst the opposition from its own oil companies.

Putin may now be cooling on the idea of joining OPEC, not least when his main motivation – to keep oil prices high – seem likely to be scuppered, not least by President Trump’s recent 180 degree switch from supporting an OPEC+ deal to declaring he would impose tariffs on crude oil imports if he needed to "protect" U.S. energy jobs.

Despite the Russian economy seemingly benefitting from the inflow of additional petrodollars, the Kremlin’s real motivation for its participation was a foreign policy and status rationale: the desire to showcase the "success" of the Kremlin’s Mideast ventures, including cooperation with the long-term Saudi adversary – and this dominated the agenda. There are even a few studies that claim that the actual impact on physical oil output was low and served more to psychologically manipulate the market.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia was aware of Russia’s unwillingness or inability to deliver oil production cuts and yet it was not until March when both sides butted heads.

Full moon rises over the Gazprom Neft's oil refinery in Omsk, Russia, February 10, 2020Credit: Alexey Malgavko/ REUTERS

The quick escalations and mutual accusations that were unthinkable even a few months ago have revealed the poor resilience of Russia’s relations with its Middle Eastern counterparts. Russia’s lack of strategy and unclear objectives in the Middle East, despite its assertiveness in the region over the past four years, have been baffling pundits ever since the beginning of the aerial campaign in Syria.

And Syria is the site of Russia’s most substantial investment of influence and resources. Its military venture in Syria – which quickly changed the course of the conflict, in favor of Bashar Assad - was projected across Russia as a landmark Kremlin achievement. Unabashed pragmatism led Russia to strike deals with erstwhile regional adversaries thanks to what was presented as an "honest broker" approach. But its endgame remains unclear.

The success, according to Russia’s understanding, of its campaign in Syria, and Russia and its proxies’ part in the defeat of ISIS might have helped the Kremlin to boost its status as a global power, or at least improve its image after fiascos in Crimes and eastern Ukraine, and President Obama’s policy of isolation.

But despite its investment, Russian involvement did not deliver substantial economic benefits for Moscow, nor did it launch a solid rapprochement with the West. What actual geopolitical goals have been achieved beyond securing a strategic military stronghold in the Latakia region?

Russia has not won any lucrative state contracts from Damascus, but Iran, its de facto partner in rescuing Assad, has acquired multiple geopolitical spoils. Tehran’s entrenchment in Syria and Lebanon, the strengthening of the pro-Iran axis throughout the Levant, concurrent with the boost to Khomeneist ideological zealotry raise further questions about Moscow’s endgoals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watching troops march at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Dec. 11, 2017 Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev,AP

Many in Moscow believe that Iran’s influence in Syria has grown too strong, and that there is no longer a meaningful differentiation between the regime and Tehran. Damascus is far more assertive than even a year ago, and there are fewer restraints on its behavior. The benefits for Russia of constraining Iran in Syria are now much lower than the potential costs.

But Moscow is now facing the necessity of downsizing its ambitions, leaning towards freezing the conflict, confining its strategic interests to the Latakia region. This desire, however, is going to be difficult to achieve, even assisted by the ceasefire deal Russia recently signed with Turkey for Syria's Idlib province, which established a security corridor and joint patrols.

For Moscow, the idea was clear: to project its hard power, amidst the vacuum left the by the U.S.’s shrinking interest and influence, allowing the Kremlin access to the corridors of power in most major capitals across the Middle East. The overall framing was to replay history: for today’s Russia to enjoy the depth of influence in which it revelled until Anwar Sadat’s expulsion of Soviet military advisers from Egypt.

But not only Syria, but the ongoing trade war with Saudi Arabia, shows that framing to be a mirage: Russia’s Middle East relationships lack institutionalization, and the personal contact that constitutes those ties can collapse as fast as sandcastles.

Although the current rift with Saudi Arabia might not fully undermine relations between Putin and MBS, or altogether cancel Russia’s gains, their apparent fragility may well influence Mideast elites’ understanding about how far Russia can be trusted. That could be a negative turning point for the Kremlin’s gamble.

It is quite possible that the notion of Russia’s "hard power" has been vastly overstated. Russia has indeed managed to improve relations with the GCC nations and sign multi-billion dollar deals, but these were the product of years of carefully cultivated economic cooperation. If the era of high oil prices is really history, then Arab monarchies are likely to tighten their belts, boosting the fiscal conservatism and decreasing levels of foreign investments - a blow to one of Russia’s major -and much-lauded- achievements of the past years.

Russian police officers wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, patrol an almost empty Arbat street in Moscow, Russia. April 2, 2020Credit: Kirill Zykov,AP

Russian’s endgoals in the Middle East are equally unclear Russia’s own population. According to a poll taken last year by the Levada Center, 55 percent of Russians want their country to withdraw from Syria.

The domestic economic slump – caused by a coronavirus-led global recession and collapse of the oil prices - might further challenge Russia’s policy in the Middle East. Although their ultimate impact on the Russian economy remains unknown, the Kremlin’s own modelling projects that, in the worst-case scenario, it will shrink by as much as 10 percent.

With millions of people being likely left unemployed, Putin’s political rankings would be taking a hit and contribute to the existing divisions over a constitutional change that could allow to extend his rule until 2036. Russia’s embattled opposition persistently questions whether the benefits of the Kremlin’s Mideast power play have really outweighed the costs.

The recent collapse of the OPEC deal, oil wars with Saudi Arabia, rapid devaluation of the national currency and domestic economic decline might trigger more public debate about whether Russia’s presence in the Middle East possesses any clear rationale. Fatigue with foreign ventures is already clear: there are far fewer discussions of the Syrian war on state-run media than even a year ago, and public skepticism will likely push Putin to reconsider, or at least postpone, military gambles abroad.

The convergence of coronavirus and oil shocks has revealed the Kremlin’s weaknesses and limitations in the Middle East. How it responds will be a litmus test – if not a reality test - of its long-term geopolitical ambitions.

What is clear is that Moscow is unlikely to energetically expand its role and seek new engagements, as it did even recently in Libya or throughout the Horn of Africa. Putin is far more likely to resort a more cautious approach focused on preserving hard-won gains and shielding them from any further unforeseen disruptions.

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and independent journalist on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia and is based in Moscow

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